A multimedia rant

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As I write this post, I know it’s going to serve as a cathartic vent for me more than anything else. I have to say I’m somewhat sick of the discussion about multimedia in journalism today. The use of multimedia itself isn’t really my qualm (even though lugging around all that expensive equipment and learning to use it does complicate overall reporting process).

As I once read on a report about new technologies from the Poynter Institute, journalists owe it to their audiences to explore new ways to deliver information. On that level, I certainly agree. Ever-evolving innovations do offer the potential for a more effective presentation. Journalists can tell stories in a far richer manner than with one medium alone. This is definitely a plus.

However, some journalists are way too enamored by the possibilities that multimedia offers. Some students I’ve talked with seem to think that anything is better as long as it’s on the Web. Poorly composed video isn’t inherently better than a well-written 20-inch print story. Grainy audio isn’t very informative.

All technology, whether it’s a video camera or a reporter’s notebook, is a tool. Journalists need to harness these tools for the most effective presentation, and they need to make those decisions on a story-by-story basis.

Coaching is crucial here. Reporters and editors (not to mention those with special skills in technology) must cooperate to envision the final product. Will the story be told solely with multimedia? A split between print and online? Does the staff have the resources to do this effectively? How much time will it take? What are the deadlines?

One point I drive home to my students is this: Every decision you make as a journalist is about enhancing communication with the audience. This includes every fact that makes its way into a story as well as the placement of every graphic on a page. It all matters. It’s never about showing off your abilities with the software.

Using multimedia is no different. The phrase “get me some audio with that” should never suffice. Rather, that’s the time to plan, discuss and create a strategy for telling an effective story.

I think I feel better now.

Digging deep to find the story

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Students often tell me no one wants to read their paper. That might be a bit of an exaggeration, but I’ve seen numerous school papers that don’t advance beyond the quaint stereotype that school newspapers exist merely as a PR piece for their school or an additional cheerleading voice for the school’s sports teams.

When I was in high school, I found old copies of the newspaper from five or six years previous, a time when the publication shifted hands between numerous advisers. The quality was, well, non-existent. The publication looked like a series of announcements someone threw onto a page with a few very small (and very grainy) pictures. It gave me reassurance that my fellow staffers and I were on the right track, at least. It gives me greater hope today to see the students I work with (at my old high school) demand even more of themselves to produce something better.

And who could blame fellow students from turning away from the meager products like the ones mentioned above. There is simply no substance. While some older people might muse and think these products are “cute,” they are utterly pointless as a public service.

Students should strive for more. Part of this stems from a thorough understanding of the journalistic storytelling process. Telling stories isn’t about seeking random quotes from people in the hallway. It’s not about settling on only two facts from a long interview with a school official to explain a change in policy. It’s not about using a monthly column to spew innuendo and half-truth simply because other students find it amusing.

Rather, journalism, at its heart, always asks how it can better serve the audience. This service takes on many forms: acting as a watchdog to question to those in power, serving as a means of information so the public can better understand things that are taking place around it, providing context about key social and political events, telling stories that help others better understand the human experience.

As part of their semester exam this year, I asked students to think of two potential story ideas that were investigative in nature, meaning they required some degree of depth, and were relevant to the audience. The results were great—they hit on everything from teen pregnancy to teen body image to the effect of technology overload. Nothing they suggested was trite. Everything had excellent potential to engage the audience about meaningful issues that affect students in their school.

While it’s more complicated than just forming ideas, that really is a crucial piece of the puzzle. Students need to be encouraged to “dream big.” Topics shouldn’t be off limits. However, once an idea is suggested, the students, with some input from the adviser, can discuss the idea to discern the best way to cover it. This is also the time to figure out why they want to write about certain issues (public service vs. a desire to sensationalize or sell more papers).

In order to prevent long-windedness here, I’ll suffice it to say that it starts with ideas. In future posts, I’ll explore the process of fleshing out these ideas and turning them into stories.

The school paper shouldn’t merely be the place to gripe about cafeteria food or whine about how dull certain classes can be. It IS the place to investigate the nutritional standards to which school lunchrooms must adhere. It IS the place where students can research state educational standards and how they affect classroom instruction. It IS the place to examine the impact of standardized tests on the curriculum. It IS the place to explore how the biases of their textbooks’ authors can influence what they learn and how school districts select certain textbooks for use.

Now those are stories worth telling!

Investigating “investigation”

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I’m often disheartened to see the lack of depth that comprises many scholastic publications. Triviality often fills too many of their pages. When some do attempt to report about deeper topics, they butcher it so badly that it leaves readers confused and, at times, outraged.

Notable exceptions exist as well. But learning to effectively write about topics that go beyond cheerleading or spreading gossip takes a lot of work, no doubt. However, it’s precisely this type of reporting that helps both the journalism staff reach its highest potential and the students in the school best understand how their school operates.

However, in no instance is it more crucial to “get it right” than when tackling tough topics—whether they be teen pregnancy or school budget deficits. I’m preparing to write an article about the need for more investigative journalism at the scholastic level. The following is a list of ideas that I think need to be included. Some deal with rationale while others are tips to keep in mind. It’s just some free association of ideas. Feel free to add more thoughts.

  • Investigative journalism and in-depth reporting are an essential service to the community. Student journalists have attained the unique position and responsibility of helping determine the direction of their school and their educational future by asking questions and digging for information.
  • Find a clear focus and rationale for the story or package. “Can” doesn’t mean “should.” Students need to receive training in both law and ethics to fully appreciate the consequences of their actions. The story also needs a reason for existing. What issue or problem does it address? How can the reporting improve the situation? What harm can be done and how will the reporter work to minimize it?
  • Be willing to invest the time. Everyone is busy. If you can’t devote the time to a story, don’t do it. The consequences of falling short are too great. Everything takes work. A good story is no exception.
  • Synthesis is important. Gathering a ton of information is useless if the reporter can’t arrange it clearly and meaningfully. A string of numbers from a budget report is worthless without reporting to add context and coherence.
  • Embrace the complexity. It’s never as simple as “get both sides.” Every situation is far more nuanced and intricate. It’s necessary to discuss issues with as many sources as possible.
  • Question the responses. If the teacher’s union president says the union is endorsing a specific candidate for school board, don’t just accept his response that “we feel he will do the best job.” Find out why. Cut through the layers to find specifics. What specifically is most appealing about that candidate—his commitment to education or his willingness to side with teachers during contract disputes? 

Finding the whole story

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At a basic, or even theoretical, level most new journalism students “get it”: their job is to find information and present it to others. However, what they often lack is the ability to translate this goal into action because they aren’t well versed in the specifics of the craft. How exactly do they verify what a source told them? What do they do if they receive conflicting information? What’s the right balance of live and Web sources?

At another level, so many newly aspiring reporters don’t know when they’ve explained something thoroughly enough. They aren’t sure how much detail to use, which facts to include and when to seek clarification from more sources.

Case in point, my students were working on a story earlier this year about a renewal school levy on the local ballot. District officials said the measure was necessary to ensure continued funding of day-to-day operations. My first questions to the class: What exactly is a levy? What role does it play in school funding in Ohio? I was met by blank stares.

My point to them that day (one I sincerely hope they took to heart) was simple: In order to tell others about something, you first have to understand it yourself.

Sometimes, that can be difficult. Last year, the paper was investigating the temperature fluctuations in rooms throughout the school. Some barely hit 60 while some were at 80 or above. A student interviewed the district operations manager. However, it was somewhat tough trying to decipher all of the pieces and parts of a commercial heating system. Again, accurately explaining how that process works was an essential part of getting the story correct. (To the credit of the student, he did a wonderful job.)

The examples could go on and on. And examples of less-than-stellar reporting can be found just as easily. Stories that aren’t complete are of service to no one. Scratching the surface often does more harm than good. Misleading the audience by omitting important facts is just as serious as adding false information. To succeed, students need to realize that all the details matter, both big and small.

I often use the mantra “editing isn’t a luxury.” However, editing is far more than proofreading for grammar, spelling and punctuation mistakes. It’s about looking for holes in the story. In other words, what will the reader not understand? Are all of the factual assertions supported by credible research and sources? Does this story provide a complete picture of this topic by attempting to examine numerous viewpoints and ideas?

While specific questions and concerns will apply to each new story, students need to understand their role is to advance the reader’s knowledge about the topic. This is part of their social function as a publication.